Finding Our Way at Back Pond Reserve Mondate

One of my favorite winter hikes upon property owned by the Greater Lovell Land Trust is at Back Pond Reserve in Stoneham. And so this morning I convinced my guy that it was the perfect trail for us to explore.

b1-the mountain trailhead

We parked on the Five Kezar Ponds Road near the trailhead for Ron’s Loop and then walked back to The Mountain Trail to begin our ascent. The reserve is a 259-acre property, with all but ten acres located on the north side of the road. The other ten south of the road will remain forever wild. Those latter ten acres were purchased in 1980 by twelve families who owned properties on Back Pond. Eighteen years later, they deeded the land to the GLLT. And then the Five Kezar Ponds Watershed Association generously helped the GLLT acquire the 249-acre piece through two purchases made in 2006 and 2010.

b2-poles at kiosk

At The Mountain Trail kiosk, plenty of information is available, including trail maps and walking sticks. The latter brought a smile to my face for it spoke to the continued generosity of those who know and love this land best.

b3-oak and beech leaves

Given the recent rain that drained our snow pack significantly and was then followed by another blast of arctic air, the trail was well packed. We could tell that a few others had traveled this way either with snowshoes or without–such were the impressions left behind. And within some of those impressions, beech and oak leaves gathered–speaking to the forest we were passing through.

b5-big toothed aspen

Not to be left out was the occasional big-toothed aspen leaf.

b6-beech leaf and husk

But really, it was the beech that we saw most often.

b6a-beech husks litter

And scattered everywhere–beech husks empty of seeds indicating it had been a mast crop year for this species. How viable the seeds were will remain to be seen.

b11-beech sap

In old wounds on several of the beech trees, amber sap had flowed and reminded me that not all sap comes from maples.

b9-trail conditions varied

Where the sun had reached the trail, conditions varied.

b7-microspikes

As the lay of the land began to get steeper, my guy decided to don his micro-spikes. One of the thoughtful efforts found periodically along the way–benches provided in the name of Ron Gestwicki who had longed served as president of the Five Kezars Watershed Association. A perfect place to rest, take in the surrounding beauty, or slip on micro-spikes.

b8-microspikes

I wore mine from the get-go and have found them the easier way to travel the past two days. It’s kind of like adding chains to the tires of a plow truck. With the spikes digging in, though I had a pole attached to our backpack I didn’t need to use it.

b10-trail makrers

The Mountain Trail is blazed with blue dots and someone used ingenuity to attach a fallen sign to a twig.

b12-turn onto old jeep road

It didn’t take long to reach the old jeep road that led to the summit. We made the left hand turn, but had a mind to go off trail for a bit.

b13-bear tree

Our first turn was to the left for we knew that bear trees stood tall there–at least for now because some looked like they were in rough shape given the beech scale disease that affected them.

b14-sidetracked to right

And then we headed off to the right, bushwhacking our way to a bit of a ledge where we hoped to find signs of a bobcat. I’m forever hopeful, but once again we came up empty handed. Previously, we had seen tracks and scat crossing the trail in numerous places, so we probably weren’t too far off with our speculation.

b15-ledge view

What we did find, a first view of the ponds below . . .

b16-trailing arbutus

and a certain sign of spring recently exposed in the form of trailing arbutus.

b17-back on trail

Finally, we headed back to the main trail and continued to climb toward the summit.

b18-porky prints

Though in general, tracking conditions weren’t great, we did find one expected customer–porcupine. It seems any time we travel this trail we find porcupine evidence.

b20-5 Kezars 1

At last, we reached lunch rock, where the view stretched from a few of the ponds across to Shawnee Peak Ski Area at Pleasant Mountain.

b22-Kearsarge and beyond

The Presidentials came into sight.

b23-Mount Washington in mix

And, of course, Mount Washington, which also displayed less of a snowpack.

b25-orange trail

From the summit, rather than hike back down the same trail, we turned to the backside and followed the orange connecting trail.

b26-swampy area

It’s fun for the community switches from hemlocks, pines and spruces to a small boggy area that offered a challenging crossing and finally back to beech and oak.

b27-beech sap again

And among those beech trees, another that had fallen and leaked sap from its butt end, plus . . .

b28-bear trees

more bear trees.

b29-brook crossing

On the downslope, we heard water running and wondered what our first brook crossing would be like. In the past, we either used a rickety old bridge, or tried not to use it.

b31-old bridge

Today, my guy went across first, and found pieces of the old bridge buried in snow. We knew we were better off without it.

b30-ice and water

I, of course, needed to stop and admire the flowing water and ice.

b32-more ice

Again and again.

b33-orange lichen

Much to our surprise, we found one more cool feature of this trail–the rare orange paintitous (is that a word?) crustose lichen. 🙂

b35-turning onto Ron's Loop

Not far from the rare find, we turned left and then right as we crossed the bridge and found ourselves on Ron’s Loop.

b36-brook and wetland

Below the bridge, the wetland bespoke more of the melt down efforts. In the past, we’ve found plenty of otter prints and slides in this area. But today, it was difficult to distinguish anything.

b37-ruffed grouse scat

We did, however, find a pile of ruffed grouse scat!

b39-H is for Hemlock

And proof that H is for Hemlock. (And Hayes)

b40-new bridge

Finally, we reached the second bridge that took us back across the brook. The bridge was built this past summer by the GLLT interns and Back Pond Reserve stewards. We truly appreciated it for many a times during the winter, the crossing had been to wide and we’d gotten wet.

b41-which way should we go?

After completing the loop, we once again gave thanks for all those who had preserved the land and created the trails so that the mammals that call this place home and folks like us could journey there.

With ease we thoroughly enjoyed this Mondate as we found our way at Back Pond Reserve.

 

 

 

 

Melt Down

After a few weeks of extreme cold, January did what it always seems to do–cranked up the thermometer. That might have been okay except that with the warm temps (40Ëšs and above) came the rain. And with the rain came the fog. And with both disappeared the snow.

j1-soggy bluejay

And so our deck was clear, except for the bird seed, of course. And a rather bedraggled bluejay. I’d noted in the past few days that all of the birds are much skinnier than I remembered, given that they didn’t need to puff out their feathers and insulate themselves from the cold.

j2-squirrel feast

The gray squirrels also came by, their mouths like vacuums as they scoffed much of the sunflower seed supply.

j3-squirrel feast 2

They, too, offered a rather bedraggled appearance, but the rain didn’t stop them from getting their fill.

j4-snow thaw and debris

And then, the rain ended, clouds moved swiftly southward, arctic wind gained strength, temperature dropped dramatically, and sun shone brilliantly. Abruptly, the thaw ended. That was fine with me for I was afraid we’d lose all of our snow cover. As it was, we lost well over a foot in the past two days. And what’s left was riddled with natural debris.

j6-vernal pool

I decided to check on the vernal pool, curious about its condition. As expected, it was still frozen, but with that yellowish brown ice of warmer days.

j7-leaves embedded in ice

Fallen leaves remained entrapped in the thin, mosaic layer.

j10-ice on ruts

Nearby, I found open water in many places; some of it with thin ice designs decorating the edges.

j25-ice

Ice forms in various ways . . .

j11-ice forms

and these three offerings were a few feet of each other.

j8-squirrel tracks

I discovered the ice as I followed red squirrel tracks created when the snow was a wee bit softer. By the time I moved across it had started to freeze again and though my snowshoes made a lot of noise and got a wee bit wet and frosty, I was thankful for them as they made my tramp easier.

j9-squirell prints

The beauty of the squirrel prints was that their toes and toe nails showed. It’s a rare occasion when conditions are just right for good prints.

j12-my squirrel cache

My next destination was to check on the creator of the tracks. And I felt as if a sun spirit was doing the same. Meanwhile, the squirrel chatted at us from a nearby tree.

j14-cones exposed but not touched

The top of its pile had been exposed, but I suspected the cones hadn’t been touched. Instead, the snow had melted off of them. I think he’s saving this pile for another rainy day.

j15-midden exposed

In the meantime, he has been busy as demonstrated by a midden slowly growing near another of his stashes.

j16-turkey prints

I decide to let him feast in peace, and instead followed some turkey tracks to another location.

j11-witches butter fungi

Along the way, it was the witches butter on an old pine stump that gave me pause. It’s also called orange jelly fungus and some say it looks like a brain. I wish I’d seen this small patch more recently, because I wondered if it had grown under the snow or if the melted snow and rain had affected it. Either way, it’s always a fun find and especially now as it adds a dash of color to our somewhat monochromatic landscape.

j17-pileated tree

My next great find was a pileated tree. I last saw it a few weeks ago, but it seemed to me that even more chiseling had taken place.

j18-pileated tree

At first, when I saw the gray wood above, I thought it might have been older work.

j19-pileated tree

And that the newer work was much lighter in color. Do you see the chisel mark? Just imagine the head banging that went into this masterpiece.

j20-pileated debris

Like the squirrel, a growing pile below added to the story. For me, it was the realization that the gray wood was excavated at the same time as the lighter wood. My new theory, the gray wood had been caused by a fungus or rot of some sort and then the insects followed and finally the woodpecker. If you know otherwise, please enlighten me for I want to understand. Of course, I looked for scat, but came up empty handed. Drats.

j21-second vernal pool

At last I reached a second vernal pool, though the going was a wee bit difficult given the conditions. This one was more open than the first.

j22-ice melting

And on this winter day that began with the tail end of a heat wave, but had chilled significantly, a watery reflection was a fun treat.

j23-sun setting behind vernal pool

On my way home, I made one more stop at the first vernal pool while the sun began to set behind it. I trust it will freeze up again, probably tonight.

What surprised me was how much had melted in the last two days. And from the looks of photos I’ve seen posted by others today, my neck of the woods shows only a wee bit of the January thaw.

We’ve had a melt down. Now it’s time for a freeze up.  Back into winter we shall go–thankfully.

 

Land Trust Trailblazers

This morning found me joining two fellow Maine Master Naturalists for a reconnaissance mission along a property I’d never explored before–nor heard of until about a month ago.

r0-Robie's Meadow

Robie’s Meadow is located on Scribner’s Mill Road in Harrison and owned by the Western Foothills Land Trust.  Our plan was to explore the meadow in preparation for an upcoming WFLT/GLLT guided hike planned for Saturday, January 27 from 9:30-12:30. For the GLLT, it’s rather like a pop-up event, since we had planned it after our regular winter schedule was published. But, that’ll make it more fun because it will be an unexpected opportunity to explore in a neighboring town.

r1-trailhead tracks

Once we climbed up over the snowbank this morning, we were immediately greeted with tracks. And then, we spied something else on the snow.

r2-scat

Scat! Rather large scat. By the size of it, we surmised coyote. But . . . a few measurements of prints and . . .

r3-sniffing red fox pee

a sniff that consisted of a musky, skunky odor made us rethink our conclusion. A red fox had most definitely left its calling card behind.

r4-fox pee everywhere

In fact, as we continued on, we realized that it had left many calling cards–in hopes of attracting some attention. The size of that scat, however, continued to haunt us for it was much larger than fox scat should have been. Perhaps we misread some of the fox tracks, for we thought two had traveled the same route, but was it really fox and coyote? We do know that they were made about the same time, given the snow conditions. And so, our best guess was that the deposit was made by a member of the Canidae family. With that conclusion we felt safe.

r5-western foothills sign

We were so distracted by the tracks we kept finding and following, that it took us a while to cross the right-of-way to the actual land trust property, but at last–success.

r7-Robie's Meadow 1

The meadow opened before us, covered as it was with morning shadows.

r8-Meadow and Russell Brook

As much as we wanted to explore it, Russell Brook was open in spots and the snow deep, and so we decided to follow the brook for a bit instead.

r9-following Alice

Breaking trail wasn’t always easy, given the depth of the snow, but Alice persevered for she knew the way, and Joan and I followed.

r10-tracks across the brook

Finally, we reached a point where we could cross and just beyond our reach we spied tracks. How we wanted them to be otter or some other member of the weasel family. Alas, when we reached the other side, we discovered it was the red fox yet again. It always amuses me how a critter becomes “our” critter when we begin to encounter signs of it with frequency and so this was “our red fox.”

r11-squirrel tracks

We were a bit disappointed that though we’d seen weasel tracks toward the beginning of our adventure, no other members of the mustelid family shared their presence. Instead, it was to red squirrels that we next turned our attention.

r12-batman 1

And Alice gave us a new insight. I’ve always said that snowshoe hare prints remind me of  lobsters. Well, today she pointed out the fact that squirrel tracks look like Batman’s mask. I will never look at squirrel tracks the same again.

r13-batman 2

Batman indeed.

r14-squirrel home

We found squirrel homes tucked under logs and trees.

r15--squirrel condo

And one very fancy squirrel condo with plenty of openings on different levels. It reminded Joan and me of a certain porcupine condominium (aka stump dump) on a property under conservation easement in Lovell.

r16-porcupine trough

Speaking of porcupines, I kept commenting that we were in porcupine habitat and hadn’t seen any signs. Until . . . we did. And when we return, we’ll do some backtracking in search of its den or feeding tree(s).

r17-turkey tracks

We continued our journey, seeing much the same along the way. At last, we turned right onto a snowmobile trail where we followed turkey tracks out to the road. Our time together had drawn to a close, but we’re excited about the possibilities for the hike on January 27th. Check out both land trusts’ websites soon for more details.

r18-pinecone bird feeders

After saying goodbye to Joan and Alice, my outdoor experience continued, this time with an after-school nature program the Greater Lovell Land Trust offers to kids at the New Suncook School. Today, Kathy M. joined me and showed the kids how to create pinecone bird feeders using pinecones, peanut butter and bird seed. Both Meg, the Lovell Recreation Director, and I were excited because our group had swelled to nine. And the next time we meet, we believe we’ll have one more young naturalist join us, bringing our number to its limit.

r19-got peanut butter?

O. smiled as he showed off the peanut butter he’d slathered onto the cone.

r20-finishing their creations

C. looked ready to eat hers, while Kathy patiently helped tied string around D.’s cone.

r21-pinecone birdfeeder by K

K. proudly showed off a finished creation.

r22-heading out to the trail

And then we headed off into the sunset via snowshoes and skis.

r23-walking beside deer tracks

And on a trail behind the school playground, fresh deer tracks made us happy. We showed the kids how to look at the heart-shape of the cloven toes and know that the bottom of the heart indicated the direction of travel.

r24-hanging pinecones

As we tramped along the trail examining tracks, we took time to hang the bird feeders. We’ll be curious to look at them when we meet again in two weeks. Today we wondered about who, besides birds, might visit them. Many bets were on deer and squirrels.

r26-exploring

The trail behind the school leads out to the power line and snowmobile trail, where again, we found many deer tracks.

r26-happy trailblazers

We’d gone a ways when we realized we needed to turn around and head back to school. But first, it was time for a group photo of happy campers.

r27-dramatic trailblazers

With smiles from all levels.

r28-Trailblazer Sign

Our after school group is called the Trailblazers. And K. took the time to illustrate what we’d done last week. Note the square with the tall person standing up and two smaller people on the ground with their snowshoes in the air. Last week, snowshoeing was a bit of a challenge for them, but this week they embraced the concept.

From beginning to end, my day was bookmarked by land trust trailblazers. How happy am I? Extremely. Perhaps the happiest camper of all.

 

 

 

 

 

Tenmile Mondate

I’d never heard of the trail system my guy and I hiked this afternoon until my friend Marita introduced me to it about a week and a half ago. And then, the temps were frigid and our time limited, so we only snowshoed to the Kettle Hole Bog. But . . . that, in itself, was well worth the journey on December 28, 2017.

t-kettle bog

It blows my mind to think that kettle holes are unique features formed over 10,000 years ago when big chunks of ice became stranded and partially buried in glacial outwash or other coarse ice-contact deposits. Eventually, the ice chunks melted, leaving ponds in holes in the ground, with no inlets or outlets. Among the vegetation variety in such a bog is black spruce that stood tall like church spires.

t-spruce caps

Because our initial visit followed the ice and snow storms of the previous weekend, most of the spires donned winter caps.

t-rhodora's winter look

And in the low shrub level, rhodora and other heath shrubs offered their winter form.

t-tenmile 2

We were traveling in the Tenmile River Demonstration Forest and within a few minutes of the kettle bog, Marita and I reached the river.

t-tenmile 1

It was late afternoon when we visited that day and the low temps meant lots of ice had formed.

t-ice on oak leaf

Of course, the ice storm of Dec 23rd added to the frozen display.

d-oak stained glass

And so, when my guy and I visited late this afternoon, I was curious about our finds. Some trees still sported icy sculptures, but much of it had blown down in recent winds. Instead, we looked through a different stained glass window as we traversed the property.

d-sign

The Tenmile River Demonstration Forest was donated to the Oxford County Soil and Water Conservation District (OCSWCD) in 1950 by Frank Merrifield, three years after the Great Fire of 1947.

Back in October 1947, catastrophic wildfires erupted throughout Maine during what became known as “The Week Maine Burned.”

It hadn’t rained for 108 days and the dry woods were like tinder. Here in western Maine, Fryeburg, Brownfield and Denmark thought they had a fire under control, but overnight a strong wind blew and gave it new life. About 2,000 acres burned by the next night as the fire spread to the edge of Brownfield.

With the winds continuously shifting, town folks began to panic. Farmers either turned their livestock loose or herded them to neighboring towns. Others packed as many belongings as they could and evacuated.

By morning, most homes and public buildings in Brownfield were mere piles of ash. Stately places including the Farnsworth Place where Dr. Philo Farnsworth, a pioneer in the field of television, spent his summers, had burned. Churches, schools, the post office, Grange hall, library and town hall all went up in smoke–only twenty houses survived. In the end, 85% of the town was destroyed.

This past fall, I had the honor of listening to storyteller Jo Radner honor the stories of Brownfield residents with her rendition of Burnt into Memory. If you ever have the chance to be in her audience, I strongly encourage you to attend and listen. Jo not only shares the stories, but also the voices.

d-kiosk

According to the property brochure available at the kiosk, “The District Supervisors replanted the property with red and white pine.” The replanting took place between 1950 and 1960. The brochure states: “It was their plan to turn the land into an example of wise and sustainable forest management and to use it as an education resource area to demonstrate good conservation management practices.”

d-whites and reds

Immediately behind the kiosk the whites and reds were obvious–white pines to the left and red to the right.

d-wetland trail

As we set out today, we found ourselves breaking trail for it seems not many wander this way in the winter. Our intention was to traverse several loops along the land of rolling hills.

In 2012, the pines that had been planted back in the ’50s and ’60s were harvested with the intention of creating an open forest to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. The overall goal was to encourage new growth and regeneration.

d-wetland view 1

Our journey along the Wetland Trail led to a shrub bog and . . .

d-wetland 2

a marshland above Round Pond. Where’s Waldo? Or rather my guy? I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had found a branch and was headed to the wetland to check on the ice. Meanwhile, I stood on it.

d-hemlock samara 1

As we broke trail, we noticed others who had done the same, including junco foot and wing prints.

d-hemlock samara

And by those footprints, we kept seeing Eastern hemlock seed samaras–minus the seed. How cool is that? While the seed depends on its wing to fly to a new home, our winged friends only care about the seeds.

d-porky trail

A porcupine had also traversed the property and as time would tell, it knew much of the over-200 acre forest.

d-snowshoe hare trail and scat

Snowshoe hare also traveled here. We were thankful for their teachings of packing trails to make movement easier, especially since we were taking turns breaking trail today. Note the touches of scat along the runway of this particular hare.

d-Round Pond overlook

As a demonstration forest, the Oxford County SWCD received a grant in 2012 from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fun to not only show how a forest harvest can be carefully planned and carried out, but also to install interpretive signs that point out special features and describe best management practices.

d-clearing the bench

Also installed at key points, benches offering views. If you go soon, you can thank my guy for clearing the seat overlooking Round Pond.

d-pitch pine

Continuing on, we noted how well marked are the trails. And sometimes such marks made us notice other things, like the fact that this chosen tree was a pitch pine, an important fire adaptive tree. Such adaptations allow it to establish and/or regenerate on burned sites through a variety of options offered by the tree and its buds.

d-beaver lodge bench

Our continued journey took us to the bench and signage for a beaver lodge, though with another foot of snow you’d hardly know it.

d-beaver lodge

Before the bench, we could see the old lodge, though it seemed abandoned given no sight of a vent on it or any new cuts nearby.

d-beaver lodge signage

But still, a sign once cleared, describe the activity and what one might expect to see within such a home.

d-gray birch

Behind the bench, a family of gray birch stood taller than most given that December ice storm had causes so many of them to bow down with the weight of the world.

d-Tenmile River

From the lodge, we went in search of a couple of beaver dams along Tenmile River, and finally spied some open water. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to see it. Do you see the trail beside the river? How I wanted it to be that of an otter. But, reality struck and it was a deer run.

d-beaver dam1

As the day darkened, we did find an old beaver dam, but again, not recent works.

d-wood duck box

And just above the dam, a wood duck box. As the brochure notes, “A harvest was carefully panned and carried out to show how forestry, wildlife habitat conservation, recreation and water resource protection could all be taken into consideration.”

d-witherod bud and leaves

Not far from the river, I found a shrub I immediately recognized for it is a wee bit different from others–witherod or wild raisin.

d-white pines laden with snow

As we continued on our way out, for there was more to discover but the night was drawing close, white pines sagged with the weight of the recent bomb cyclone.

d-red pine laden with snow

And as it should be along this trail, red pines on the opposite side showed that they, too, had bowed to the burdens.

d-gateway between red and white pines

But what struck me about these two species, red pine to the left and white pine to the right, with my guy’s tracks between, was the fact that the Oxford County SWCD had had the foresight to acquire this land and follow up on its purpose as a demonstration forest.

Our journey on this Mondate was only about four miles along the Tenmile River loops, but already, we can’t wait to return and learn what else this property has to offer.

 

 

 

The Day After the Bomb Cyclone

We survived yesterday’s blizzard, but I wondered about our neighborhood. Last night the winds howled and we watched snow blow from north to south on a horizontal plane.

b-snow cloaked well

As I headed out to check on the situation this morning, I noticed the cloaked well, so had the snow swirled about its structure.

b-stone wall

The pattern repeated itself in so many places including the gap in the stone wall.

b-pine needles in pileated woodpecker hole

And in the aftermath came new ornamentation in unexpected places, like pine needles in an old pileated woodpecker hole,

b-witch hazel leaf

a single witch hazel leaf standing upright,

b-maple seed atop hemlock needles

and a maple seed resting upon a hemlock twig.

b-snow fort 1

There were snow forts in various forms–some with arches . . .

b-snow fort 2

and others with turrets.

b-ice march

Though much ice had finally fallen, some continued to march across twigs . . .

b-gray birch new catkin

and coat new catkins with an extra layer of protection against the frigid air.

b-gray birch catkins

Scattered about on top of the snow most everywhere I looked, however, were the scales of the fleur de lis and miniature seeds of various birches and cones scales and seeds of evergreens. Somehow, and perhaps its because the ice still held them in place, many catkins still hadn’t sent their tiny seeds flying. For the birds and mice who dine on them, a slowed dispersal might mean food security.

b-red squirrel hole and prints

I wondered about the mammals and saw only red and gray squirrel tracks, in this case a red who left its tunnel to bound across to another below a tree. Later, one gray squirrel hopped slowly through the deep snow. Eventually it climbed a tree and moved with much more agility across its branch highway.

b-deer bed

Deer were the only others that had moved. One had found the southern side of a tree to bed down for the night, such is the form you may see here, with the smooth side of its back being to the left. I could imagine the snow swirling about it, but trust that at the same time, the depth added an insulating quality.

b-deer fed on fungi

I wondered what the deer had been foraging since the acorns were becoming more difficult to acquire. Curiously, I found that several downed trees I knew had been covered with fungi were freshly excavated and harvested.

b-deer feast 1

Red maple bark . . .

b-deer feast 2

also showed signs of a recent dining experience.

b-common milkweed aphids

Back home after a few hours spent trudging through snow so deep that at times I was up to my knees despite my snowshoes, I made a point to visit one more spot beside the front door–where the milkweed grows. Do you see the two insects atop the pod? Those were Oleander aphids who fed on the plant previously.

b-common milkweed 1

Despite all the wind of yesterday and last night, I was surprised to discover that the seeds hadn’t all yet floated on to new homes.

b-common milkweed 2

Like so many others, they remained huddled together.

The day after the bomb cyclone or bombogenesis storm, so named because of the steep drop in atmospheric pressure that occurred, I discovered that most of the world was still curled up. With more wind and frigid air in the forecast, hunkering down is a grand idea.

 

 

Book of January: Winter World

It seemed only apropos as a blizzard intensifies that the January Book of the Month be Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World: the ingenuity of animal survival.

w-Winter World by Bernd Heinrich

In this very readable book, biologist and illustrator Heinrich takes us into the depths of animal adaptation that allows even the tiniest among us to deal with the elements in order to avoid freezing to death. Of course, some do. And others become food.

A main theme of the book is the yellow-crowned kinglet, a bird Heinrich describes as weighing as little as two pennies. I’ve only had the honor of observing these tiny birds a couple of times, but daily watch other birds puff out their feathers to insulate their bodies from the frigid temps we’ve experienced this winter.

w-snow on pines

The bird frenzy was crazy at the feeders all day today. And the blizzard conditions drew me outside for a while on a quest of my own to see what else I might observe. Other than lots of snow, I didn’t see much. A few chickadees flew in to check on me as they worked on hemlock cones–in their attempt to release seeds. And I startled a ruffed grouse, which in turn startled me.

w-no Mount Washington in sight

But really, the wind was strong and view at times quite limited.

w-gray birch

One of the curious things that Heinrich doesn’t address in this book is the affect of a changing habitat on survival. With all the snow and ice we’ve had, gray birches everywhere have bent with their burdens. I know this area to be frequented by snowshoe hares, but suspect that will change as the birches die and red maples take their  place.

w-deer tag

It’s also an area that the deer pass through, not stopping to rest for it’s a bit wet at times, but certainly pausing to browse.

w-deer rub

And leave behind their scent.

w-vernal pool

Nearby exists my favorite vernal pool. In chapter 13: Frozen Frogs on Ice, Heinrich addresses the chemistry that allows the wood frogs and peepers who will sing from this pool in the future to become frost-tolerant. “When the first ice crystals begin to form on or in the skin of a wood frog, it sets off an alarm reaction. Skin receptors relay the message of freezing to the central nervous system (CNS), and the CNS activates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline into the bloodstream. When the adrenaline circulates to the liver, it there activates the enzymes that convert the liver’s stores of glycogen to glucose. In the wood frog, this response is massive and before the ice reaches the cells they become packed with glucose that acts as an antifreeze . . . in about fifteen hours, the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead. But it is prepared to again revive at a later date.” As he says, the wood frogs (and hibernating bears) are “biological marvels that challenge the limits of our believes of what seems possible.” 

w-goldenrod gall

There’s so much more in his book, including chapter 14: Insects: From the Diversity to the Limits, in which among other things he discusses the goldenrod gall fly larva that is “physiologically specialized to overwinter.” 

While I was out and about, I checked on the red squirrel cache I’ve been keeping an eye on. No action of any kind today. In fact, most critters seemed to have hunkered down to wait out the storm, huddled together in ground or tree holes and dens. Sometimes in the quiet of a snowstorm I meet deer, but not so today. With the wind whipping through the trees, large plops of snow whooshed off of hemlocks and pines, while shards of ice crackled and fell. A few times I felt like Chicken Little as a chunk hit my hat. All of that was reason enough to find a cozy spot.

w-blizzard of 2018

Finally, it was time for me to do the same. To return home, brew a cup of tea, and reread Bernd Heinrich’s book. It’s one of my favorites, although I also love The Geese of Beaver Bog, The Trees in My Forest, and A Year in the Maine Woods. (Note: my least favorite is Summer World. Not sure why, but try as I might, I can’t get through it.)

w-a smile and a wink

Winter World literally and figuratively makes me smile.

Winter World: The ingenuity of animal survival by Bernd Heinrich, published 2003, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Tracker Tales

When I pulled into the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library parking lot this morning I didn’t expect any of the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers to be waiting for me given that the temperature was at least -20Ëš. But, Jo Radner was ready and waiting. She joined me for the drive to the John A. Segur West property on New Road.

Standing in the small parking lot was Stephen Lewis, another diehard participant. And as  Jo and I fiddled with our snowshoes, Heinrich Wurm pulled in.

And so, we four intrepid trampers took off over the snowbank and immediately met some tracks. A little back tracking and attention to details helped us determine a bobcat had crossed the trail. There were red and later gray squirrel tracks, deer, and mice. Most were old for the animals, especially the squirrels and mice seemed to be hunkered down in their holes–certainly a good choice.

j-junco tracks and wing marks

By the time we reached the old log landing at the end of the trail, we noticed lots of junco tracks and their small wing impressions. Seeds aplenty were scattered across the snow. Our conversation soon turned from the little birds to an experience I had this past week when a saw-whet owl flew into a thick stand of hemlocks I was crashing through like a bull in a china shop. I had just finished saying that much to my surprise the bird flew in as I broke through the branches when one would expect a bird to quickly depart, when Steve pointed at something in our midst.

j-mouse discovery 1a

We all moved in for a closer look.

j-mouse discovery 2

A dead mouse splayed on the branch of a gray birch. My brain played with that sight over and over again. Yes, we’d seen numerous crazy mouse tracks left behind by either deer or white-footed mice–it’s difficult to determine which, for both have long tails that leave drag marks between their footprints. Jumping mice hibernate so they could be ruled out.  Jo asked if I could tell which of the other two it might be. I’m happy to say that even well-respected tracker Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing, has this to say, “There are more than 120 different species of North American mice, and about half of them fall under the general rubric ‘white-footed mouse.’ The deer mouse is a type of white-footed mouse, and to me there is not perceptible difference in tracks. There are several anatomical differences, but these change from habitat to habitat. The white-footed mouse measures up to about seven and a half inches long (including its three-and-a-half inch tail) and weighs one-half to one ounce. Its color is gray or light brown to dull orange-brown above, with a white belly, throat, and, as its name implies, feet. The deer mouse is gray to reddish brown on its upper parts, including its tail, and white below, with longer hind feet and a tail usually longer than its body. Both animals have bicolored a bicolored tail.”

j1-mouse 1

Our next question was, “How did it get there?” My mind immediately went to a December 13 entry on page 419 in Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day by Day about butcher birds overwintering. Mary discusses how northern shrikes preferred food sources are other birds, mammals and insects. “This tundra-nesting bird comes as far south as New England in the winter, where it preys mainly on mice, voles, and small birds.” She goes on to explain that the bird often kills more than it can consume and leaves some food in the freezer for future feeding adventures. “The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gives it the nickname ‘butcher bird.’ It often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch, or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where it hangs until reclaimed by the shrike.”

Bingo! I think we figured out what we were seeing and in Mary Holland’s book we have my dear friend, mentor and former LEA and GLLT Education Director, Bridie McGreavy, PhD, to thank for the photo.

We could have turned around then, so thrilled were we, but we hadn’t even reached the wetland. And so, a quick check to make sure everyone was comfortable and on we trekked.

j-deer crossing Bradley Brook

When we found more deer tracks, we decided to follow them in search of beds. At that point we found no bedding areas, but did see that the deer had crossed Bradley Brook.

j-Bradley Brook frozen

It was the first time I’d ever seen the brook frozen over and we took advantage by making our way to the other side.

j-water on lungwort 1

We continued looking for tracks, but found other things as well, including dried lungwort. I mentioned that lungwort, like other bryophytes, will immediately photosynthesize when water is added. Jo wanted proof and so I had her pull out my water bottle and pour it over the leafy structure.

j-lungwort turning green

Within minutes . . .

j-lungwort magic

magic.

j-beaver works 1

As we crossed the wetland, we searched high and low for evidence of wildlife. Up high, chickadees and goldfinches sang from treetops. Down low–not a single track. We did find a few examples of beaver works.

j-beaver works 2

And we thought perhaps the lodges were active.

j-beaver works 3

We hoped.

j-checking the beaver lodge1

But our hope was dashed.

j-beaver lodge 2

No vent hole above and no evidence of life anywhere nearby. Perhaps they’d abandoned this for a second one we spied.

j-stone lodge

Only thing is that the second one also supported no mammal life at the moment, for it turned out not to be a lodge after all, but a boulder covered with snow.

j-beaver dam

Just beyond the boulder lodge, however, we found the old dam, which still stood strong.

j-sharing smiles at the dam

Our smiles were equally strong as we acknowledge what a fine day it had been and this would make the perfect turn around point.

j-Heinrich looking skyward

Jo and Steve took one last look at the brook below and Heiner turned his eyes skyward.

j-heading back

Heading back, we all did the same for we heard military planes flying overhead and could see their contrails.

j-looking north

But it was the cloud formation that really drew our attention.

j-clouds 2

Steve mentioned lenticular clouds and it seemed the perfect explanation given that these lens-shaped structures probably formed after the flow of air encountered Mount Washington.

j-mouse in tree crotch

Our journey back found us going off trail again, and we did find a couple of deer beds, but what will stand out in our brains for this day’s tramp–the mouse with the very long tail and tiny white feet. How it got there, we don’t know for sure, though the shrike story does make sense. What I am sure of is that it will become part of our tracker tales.